The Fast Foodist: Why McDonald’s is selling Egg McMuffins for just 63 cents — and how the 50-year-old sandwich revolutionized fast food
Let us now praise a famous breakfast sandwich.
I’m talking about the McDonald’s
Egg McMuffin, the simple yet simply delicious combo of a fried egg, cheese and Canadian bacon, served on an English muffin. The breakfast offering is turning 50 years old, and McDonald’s is marking the occasion by rolling back the price of a McMuffin to 63 cents (the original cost) on Thursday, provided you order it on the McDonald’s app.
But I’ll gladly pay full price for an Egg McMuffin — it costs $3.99 at my local Mickey D’s — and I often do so. It’s a sandwich that was not only revolutionary for its time, but it still remains one of the best bites in fast-foodlandia.
First, a little history. Before the Egg McMuffin, McDonald’s didn’t offer breakfast. For that matter, no fast-food chains really did. This was an industry built around the lunch and dinnertime burger. Eggs were that thing consumed by people at some unholy hour when the only activity inside a fast-food restaurant might be the prep crew slicing tomatoes.
Enter Herb Peterson, a McDonald’s operator in Santa Barbara, Calif. He wondered why he couldn’t serve something to his customers seeking a quick-and-easy option for breakfast, the morning equivalent of, say, a burger. Peterson also was a man who liked his eggs Benedict. So, in 1971, he came up with a portable version, going so far as to have a blacksmith create a special iron ring, so he could cook a perfectly circular fried egg for the sandwich. McDonald’s officials say Peterson initially tried a version of the item with the classic Hollandaise sauce, but then came up with the recipe we know today. By 1975, the Egg McMuffin was available nationally.
Technically, Peterson wasn’t the first McDonald’s operator to do breakfast — one in Pittsburgh started selling doughnuts and sweet rolls in 1970. But Peterson’s invention put McDonald’s on the breakfast map and created a whole new revenue stream for the fast-food behemoth, whose annual sales topped $19 billion in 2020. McDonald’s officials won’t say how much breakfast contributes to that bottom line, but QSR magazine, an industry publication, said in 2018 that pre-lunch orders made up 25% of the chain’s revenue. In other words, that’s a lot of Egg McMuffins.
And it’s also a lot of sausage biscuits and hotcakes and hash browns, to name some other items on the Golden Arches’ breakfast menu. More to the point: if you’ve ordered a Croissan’wich at Burger King
or a Cheesy Toasted Breakfast Burrito at Taco Bell
or virtually any breakfast item at any fast-food chain, you’re witnessing the legacy of the Egg McMuffin. Wendy’s also invested $20 million to roll out its breakfast menu in March 2020. The Egg McMuffin was the sandwich that changed the game — and, in a sense, the way America (or at least the fast-food-loving portion of America) eats.
With that in mind, I went back to my local McDonald’s for an Egg McMuffin this morning just to confirm what I basically already knew — namely, that the sandwich still works. As I rediscovered, the key to what makes it so great is the balance of flavor and texture: the toasted English muffin provides a bit of crunch; the Canadian bacon adds a little porky saltiness; the cheese gives a note of creaminess; and the egg…well, the egg is the star. Mainly because it’s an actual egg — yolk, white and all — rather than an egg “product” that never delivers the same level of satisfaction.
The Egg McMuffin is also perfectly customizable, which is something McDonald’s is trying to emphasize of late. You can add bacon or tomato, if you’d like, the chain notes. I just put a little of McDonald’s hot (Picante) sauce on mine and have been doing so for years.
For those concerned with nutrition, the Egg McMuffin is actually one of the best bets on the McDonald’s menu, from a calorie-perspective, at 300 calories. By contrast, the chain’s large sausage biscuit, packing 570 calories, has nearly double that amount. (That said, the Egg McMuffin is a bit high in the sodium department, with 820 milligrams.)
It’s perhaps no surprise that McDonald’s is playing up the Egg McMuffin right now, since it’s no secret the chain has had some trouble in recent years with breakfast sales. (And restaurants really love their breakfast business because it’s more profitable — as in eggs cost the company less than burgers and chicken.)
Pandemic-related shutdowns also hit fast-food restaurants like McD’s and Taco Bell especially hard by taking a bite out of their breakfast sales once millions of Americans began working from home. And McDonald’s had to abandon its all-day breakfast menu last year in an effort to simplify operations during the pandemic, company officials said, though the chain doesn’t rule out a return.
I’m hoping it does return. I am more inclined to order an Egg McMuffin than a Big Mac or Quarter Pounder for lunch or dinner. It’s satisfying and yet less indulgent. And it offers proof that Herb Peterson was onto something a half-century ago. Times may change, but the Egg McMuffin lives on forever.
The Fast Foodist is a new MarketWatch column that looks at restaurant menu items through a critical and business-minded lens. Send suggestions of products that you think should be critiqued to firstname.lastname@example.org.